By Ray Bennett
LONDON – The creature in director Katie Mitchell’s Beauty and the Beast at London’s National Theatre is a great hairy beastie, a 10-foot cross between a rat and a wolf with a voice that growls and thunders like Darth Vader.
On fur-clad bouncy stilts, Mark Arends makes him both perfectly scary for 8-year-olds and vulnerable and sad. Sian Clifford plays the spirited and sometimes selfish beauty who is very slow to catch on that inside the monstrous figure is a handsome prince waiting to get out.
Together they render the fable as a frightening, funny and warm entertainment for youngsters.
Mitchell has devised the show as presented at a music hall where the Master of Ceremonies is a Man in Pink played with sinister glee by Justin Salinger. He has a much put upon French assistant named Cecile (Kate Duchéne), whom he abuses freely, which encourages the kids in the audience to cheer and boo as the case may be.
There’s also an odd-looking assistant in a fright wig named Rabbit (Kristin Hutchinson) who users a Rube Goldberg-type of contraption called a Thought Snatcher – a tin hat at the end of a pole with a light bulb on top that’s placed on someone’s head – that lets the audience hear what characters are thinking. At one point the device is turned on members of the audience to amusing effect.
The Man in Pink relates the back-story of how the young prince became a beast after being cursed by a fairy and may only be saved by a woman who loves him despite his appearance. It’s a simple and honorable sentiment grasped easily by young children who holler their support for various characters as the 90-minute show (plus an interval) progresses.
Mitchell enhances the tale with effects that include elegant and witty shadow puppetry, videos, a live fireplace, and magic tricks. To bridge the gap between the stage and the screen technology children have at home, Mitchell includes a pause button – more like a railway crossing lever – that can also rewind the action. It adds to the charm of a show that is good fun without the need to be loud and boisterous.
Venue: National Theatre, runs through Jan. 4; Cast: Sian Clifford, Mark Arends, Justin Salinger, Kate Duchéne, Sean Jackson, Kristin Hutchinson; Devised and directed by: Katie Mitchell; Text: Lucy Kirkwood; Set, costume designer: Vicki Mortimer; Lighting designer: Jon Clark; Sound designer: Gareth Fry; Music: Paul Clark; Movement director: Joseph Alford; Puppets: Matthew Robins; Video: Fifty-nine Prods.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.